How to improve emotional intelligence

Future-proof your career: 7 ways to improve emotional intelligence

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So far, no imaginable event – not even a global pandemic – could diminish the value of EQ in business. In fact, developing a balanced EQ skill set has never been more important in every area of life. But can you learn it? And more importantly, how do you improve emotional intelligence?

Let’s face it, we know we’re emotional beings. Emotion has been essential to our survival (and sometimes has caused problems, of course). Emotion makes our experiences our own and allows us to share our feelings and understand the experience of others.

And in the age of COVID-19 – and for a long after –  we’ll be working through some incredibly strong and volatile emotional residue.

Benefits of emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence competencies top the list of evergreen people skills such:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-regulation
  • Empathy
  • Being aware of others’ emotions
  • Managing relationships
  • Having difficult conversations while inspiring others to be their best

The good news is that, yes, it’s possible to improve emotional intelligence. And raising your EQ will help you become a better and more effective leader at work.

Since Daniel Goleman developed the idea of emotional intelligence and brought it to the business world, mountains of articles, books, and development plans have been made for learning and improving EQ skills (or EI, as Goleman prefers).

Goleman says, “Nested within each domain are twelve EI competencies, learned and learnable capabilities that allow outstanding performance at work or as a leader.”

EQ is vital to our interconnectedness

Business and society continue to evolve, revealing the breadth and depth of human interconnectedness.

As new realms open and we leave the work of computing and repetition to the machines, we’re learning to embrace and inhabit our uniquely human abilities like context-aware problem solving and innovation.

According to Goleman, there are four overarching domains of emotional intelligence, which collectively contain twelve competencies:

  • Self-awareness: emotional self-awareness
  • Self-management: emotional self-control, adaptability, achievement orientation, positive outlook
  • Social awareness: empathy, organizational awareness
  • Relationship management: influence, coach and mentor, conflict management, teamwork, inspirational leadership

In a Harvard Business Review article on EI for leadership, Goleman discusses “skills that a kind, positive manager … might lack: the ability to deliver difficult feedback to employees, the courage to ruffle feathers and drive change, the creativity to think outside the box.”

Some facets of emotional intelligence are easy to spot:

  1. Empathy
  2. Positive outlook
  3. Self-control

Goleman follows up, saying, “But they also include crucial abilities such as achievement, influence, conflict management, teamwork and inspirational leadership.”

And, finally, the business case for emotional intelligence is that “to excel, leaders need to develop a balance of strengths across the suite of EI competencies. When they do that, excellent business results follow.”

7 ways to improve emotional intelligence 

1. Assess yourself before your wreck yourself

Find yourself. Where are you on the EQ map? There are assessments to help get a sense of your strengths and areas with room for improvement. Following are a few examples:

Whether you take one test or a few, you’ll likely find some overlap and confirmation of your strengths and areas in need of greater balance.

2. Seek feedback 

Discomfort is part of growth. Sometimes we need to have hard conversations if we’re going to get a more complete picture of our behavior and how it affects others. Solicit feedback from people you respect and whose opinions you value. Gaining these insights can be incredibly helpful, once the stings of truth calm down.

You may also hear some harsh criticism and get feedback from some people who’ve been waiting to tell you what they really think of you. Be sure to take plenty of salt with your feedback. Learning to handle criticism is essential for improving self-awareness, regulating your emotions, and managing relationships.

3. Practice makes perfect sense: Exercise your EQ muscles

The bottom line is that to improve you have to practice. Sometimes you can practice on the fly and in the moment when you notice an opportunity. Other times you’ll have to deliberately seek out a setting in which to practice some EQ competencies.

Just like working out or doing some activity you aren’t used to doing, you’ll discover muscles you didn’t know you had. Because they’re sore. Growth in almost anything means getting outside your comfort zone, and is a requirement if you want to improve emotional intelligence.

4. Self-awareness and self-management

Try to take note in those moments when you notice a change in your emotions. Often, these moments are when we’re suddenly angry or upset and want to react.

Maybe someone is upset, or we perceive something someone does as personal or a slight. Maybe a customer is angry and demands answers and action.

It’s natural to become defensive or angry in reaction. But being aware of the emotions of others and your own emotions can make regulating and managing your emotions much easier.

Emotional self-control and adaptability complement each other. Adapting to fluid contexts and solving problems under pressure with no clear road map or instructions requires you to maintain control of your emotions.

Positive outlook may sound like you’re always cheery and happy and feeling good. That’s not reality. That’s annoying. However, most of the time, a positive outlook is an intentional mindset, a deliberate choice – one that’s incredibly challenging to choose at times. So, it’s no wonder that self-management plays a vital role in continually choosing a positive outlook, especially when you have to make the choice several times a day – at every other email and any time you look at the news.

5. Social awareness

The more moving parts – or people – you add to a situation, the more complicated things get.

It takes time to learn work cultures and how people approach different situations, whether it’s navigating a social setting or conducting yourself in a meeting, being aware of the social contexts, power dynamics, and the influence of organizational structures and cultures, or being aware of others’ emotions as well as expectations for conduct within an organization.

6. Relationship management

Balancing your EQ strengths includes being proactive and engaging others so they can also inspire and mentor while also doing the uncomfortable tasks.

For example, maybe you have a teammate or employee whose attitude or conduct is having a negative impact on others. Having a conversation that ends up inspiring them to consider their behavior and change requires tools that we don’t always think of as being part of emotional intelligence.

That kind of leadership requires knowing your team as individuals with different strengths and needs, and understanding what motivates people determines your entire approach.

7. Be present 

If you want to improve emotional intelligence, you must be present, especially as a leader.

In Working with Emotional Intelligence, Goleman quotes William Kahn, psychologist at Boston University School of Management, saying, “Being present requires ‘not being disabled by anxiety, and so being open to others.’”

That can be a tall order when the only constant is change and uncertainty.

“When fully present, we are more attuned to those around us and to the needs of the situation,” Goleman says, “and we fluidly adapt to what is needed – in other words, we are in flow. We can be thoughtful, funny, or self-reflective, drawing on whatever capacity or skill we need at the moment.”

It’s an understatement to say that being present is difficult at times.

When the new normal is to be present digitally, emotional intelligence as presence will have to evolve.

And it’s possible.

It’s necessary.

Check in on your people. It’s tough when you’re in end-to-end conference calls, but it’ll be worth it to you and your team.

Get comfortable with discomfort, learn to thrive in uncertainty: EQ in the time of COVID-19

Life is still being changed in ways we can’t yet imagine. For many, remote work will be the new normal for a long time, maybe indefinitely. Fear, unfortunately, may linger long in our collective memory, even after the immediate threat has passed.

We may well be in the Age of Anxiety 2.0.

Populations who had previously felt beyond the reach of the bad things in the world have had to face the reality of their vulnerability and their mortality. A lot of new and volatile emotions will be in play. The value of leaders with high EQ has never been greater.

Gauging tone and emotion through text or email can be notoriously difficult. With more people working from home, and with fewer (if any) face-to-face meetings taking place, opportunities for misunderstanding will increase.

Certainly, teleconferencing companies have changed the way we work and communicate remotely. Once work was dispersed with us into our homes and other remote locations, we suddenly remembered the value of a phone call or a virtual face-to-face meeting to reincorporate audio and visual cues that get lost in text alone.

Whether as an individual or a team leader, begin with yourself. Get your own emotional intelligence house in order. If you lead an organization or a team, provide emotional competence training. Your org is likely to operate more smoothly internally and will be equipped to engage partners and customers more effectively. Boost employee and customer satisfaction at the same time as your bottom line.

And the advantage of adapting to the new EQ for a post-COVID-19 world will set you ahead of a different kind of curve.

Shine in the moments that matter.
Download our report on the future of customer experience.

Josh Maday
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Josh Maday

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